Getting people to understand the importance of local government starts by convincing them it isn’t boring or intimidating.
That’s what the local digital communications specialist Joey Brunelle wants to do. Besides designing print ads and podcasting, Brunelle has been engaged in a lot of civic-related activities, and he hopes you will too.
Last year, he was part of the movement to help save the India Street Health Clinic. He was also the Secretary of Portland Democrats. More recently, he’s been live-streaming from inside Portland’s City Council meetings and blogging bite-sized bits of related info from them later. He’s active on social media, attempting to drum up early support ahead of his run for the at-large city councilor seat in November. His mission lately has been to get people more involved and educated on local civics in general, but also prime them for what he hopes to be future progressive reform, and direct action on several key issues in Portland.
Earlier this week Brunelle spoke to The Phoenix about a range of big issues as he laid out his vision for Portland’s future.
First things first, where are you at on the political spectrum?
I’m definitely on the left. I’ve been using the word progressive on my branding but I'm not entirely sure if I align with the term; we’re at a strange point in history right now where we’re not really sure what it means anymore.
I’ve considered using the term Democratic Socialist instead. I believe strongly that we shouldn’t leave anybody behind and that we all need to collaborate to do that.
What do you consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Portland City Council right now?
It’s really amazing how diverse the council is. There’s an incredible array of people and backgrounds there this year. I think they all do a pretty good job of bringing their own experiences to the table.
As far as weaknesses, there’s the elephant in the room: whatever disagreement is going on between Mayor Ethan Strimling and City Manager Jon Jennings. Without assigning blame to either one of them, it’s made the whole environment difficult to work in.
The councilors also don’t do a good enough of job of looking to see what other cities are doing in terms of policy. Whether it’s housing, the environment, or civic participation. They have this mentality of ‘Oh, this is the way we’ve always done things.’
Why did you decide to run for city council?
To be honest, Bernie Sanders was a big part of it. When he said that he can’t change anything because the movement starts with the people. It was a kick in the pants to do it myself. I always had ideas on how city government should work.
But also the India Street situation played a role.
As a gay man, the discussion around that clinic was infuriating to me. Councilors and city staff obviously didn't understand the importance of that clinic to Portland’s gay community, because they’re not gay.
I thought to myself that if there were a gay person up there we wouldn’t be having this discussion. So I said, ‘Hey, I’ll be that person.’
What are your thoughts on the outcome of the India Street health services situation?
The city has done a less than stellar job of communicating what the current state of it is.
The 230 patients that were part of the program that got shut down found care elsewhere. They went to various places. The remaining three parts of India street are still there, but staff has been reduced to about four or five people, so they’re kind of running with a skeleton crew.
A substance abuse treatment clinic now shares a place with the India street clinic as well. It’s good in the sense that they do great work, there will opportunities for the services to integrate and overlap, but in the other sense this place that was part of the LGBTQ community is now been refocused towards something else, like the opioid problem — which is worthwhile, but it’s still a loss of the LGBTQ community.
Do you go to each city council meeting?
I do try to go to all the meetings. I believe very strongly that the city needs to do a better job of communicating to citizens what the hell it’s doing. They should have an agenda that’s more understandable.
Can you talk about why you’ve been trying to increase transparency through your blog and podcast?
People are interested in what’s going on in city government but they're having a hard time interfacing with it, and the city’s not making it easier.
The school board does a better job of explaining what it’s doing in a way that people can understand.
OK, so on your website you write about a bold, innovative progressive vision for the city of Portland. What is it?
Providing more affordable housing. I lived in San Francisco for five or six years, at the height of the housing crisis. I saw first hand how destructive it can be. It got to the point where teachers couldn’t live in the city. It’s still going through a teacher’s shortage. Restaurants couldn’t find people to work in them. It offed its cultural economy. The artists and musicians left.
I see the affordable housing issue as the most pressing one. I see us on the same path. I see glimmerings of the same phenomenon happening here.
We need to look at what other cities are trying to combat this problem and experiment and apply those strategies here. Not enough was done last year on housing, not enough is done this year. I have friends everyday that say I can’t live in Portland because the rents are too high. That’s a big loss.
What else do you see as pressing issues in Portland?
Property taxes are a big issue. Where rent prices are an issue for musicians and families and working class people, property tax is an issue for elderly and retired people. We need to address their needs as well.
Portland has an opportunity as the largest and most liberal city in the state to lead on a bunch of issues. We should be leading on climate change. We’ve just been sitting on our hands for the last couple of years.
South Portland is way ahead of us on pesticides, tenants rights, composting, and that shouldn’t be.
I would want to see us grow into our role and have a city government that reflects the values and desires of the people in the city. The people are hungry for it.
How do outside interests relate to the housing crisis?
We’re in a bit of building boom right now, which is great, but it creates interesting situations. There are decisions that come before the city council almost every week where some real estate developers profits are put on the line.
For example, there’s a meeting later on this week on the economic development committee for parcels of land that the developer wants for something that they're going to build, and the city is either selling it to them or swapping land with them. I don’t want the temptation to be influenced by the real estate developers. I’m glad they’re building housing, I just wish they were building affordable housing.
How do you feel about the trend towards privatization, like in the case of waste services?
I don’t think it’s always true that the private sector can do a better job. San Francisco runs a world class, city-run public health system, that provides way more services and is a huge asset to their community. There are plenty of cities that have public waste departments that do great work.
Privatizing them would trade away non-unionized jobs. Private companies will tell us what we want to hear in the proposal stage, and then 5-10 years down the line the costs will go up by surprise. Once we sold all the garbage trucks, and the private companies hold all the negotiating cards, they’ll start putting the screws to us financially.
I’m worried that privatization would lower the quality of these services because the management won’t be local anymore. One of the companies they’re looking at for garbage collection is based in Massachusetts.
Where do you stand on the school bond debate?
I’m definitely in favor for the school bond because we’ve been having this discussion for 20 years since I was in high school. There are other schools that are going to need fixes as well. If we’re going to look for state funding, we’re also going to need them for high schools, and we’re going to have to be thinking about that very soon.
Nobody can guarantee that the school board will find funding. We could wait and see, but we wouldn’t know until 2019, and then the councilors will say ‘Oh, we need another ad hoc committee, another study, another set of 10 votes on this,’ and we’re right back to where we’re at now. It’s disingenuous; nobody can say what future city councilors will do.
What are the biggest challenges ahead?
We need to do a better job of making collaborative decisions. There’s a real sense that City Hall doesn’t really give a damn what people think and it’s going to do what it wants to do, and you can speak all you want to public comment, but they’ve already decided what their decision is.
I want to change that mentality. I’m seeking people to help me develop a platform on these issues. I want to give people a voice on a local scale.
Bernie was right, we need to start locally. For too long we have felt that local politics was too boring, and we’ve avoided it to our detriment. If you look at a lot of the Republicans who are controlling our national government, a lot of them started in city government. The Democrats don’t have that kind of pipeline.
If I can help people see how campaigns work and how city government works, and bring them into the process that’s not intimidating or boring, I will have considered this a success.
If you want to learn more about Joey Brunelle and where he stands on other key issues, go to: http://brunelleforportland.org/